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Walter Hussey Burgh (1742–1783 ) was an Irish statesman, barrister and judge; he sat in the Irish House of Commons, and was considered to be one of its outstanding orators. He served briefly as Chief Baron of the Exchequer in the last year of his life.[1]



He was born in Kildare, son of Ignatius Hussey of Donore House, near Naas, and his wife Elizabeth Burgh. Elizabeth was the daughter of the leading statesman and architect Colonel Thomas de Burgh, who designed some of the most notable Irish buildings of his era, including Trinity College Library, and his wife Mary Smyth.[2] Walter adopted the surname Burgh as a condition for inheriting the Burgh estate at Drumkeen, County Limerick from his uncle Richard Burgh. Another influential connection was Anthony Foster, Burgh's predecessor as Chief Baron: both of Foster's wives were members of the Burgh family.


In 1767 Walter married his second cousin Anne de Burgh, daughter of Thomas Burgh and sister of the statesman William de Burgh. The had one son and five daughters, including Catherine, who married Sir John Macartney, 1st Baronet, and Mary, who married Richard Griffith. Anne died in 1782. Their descendants included Hussey Burgh Macartney, first Dean of Melbourne.[3]


He was educated at Mr. Young's school at Abbey Street in Dublin, and then at the University of Dublin, where he graduated Bachelor of Arts in 1762; he was an accomplished classical scholar, and had some reputation as a poet.[4] After studying at the Temple, he was called to the Bar in 1769 and within a few years became one of its leaders. He entered the Irish House of Commons in the same year, sitting first for Athy, later for the University of Dublin.

In Parliament he was a close associate of Henry Grattan, and a supporter of Grattan's "free trade" programme; he became legendary for his oratory in support of the Irish Patriot Party. At the same time he prided himself on his independence of mind, preferring not to pledge support for any particular policy until he had examined its merits. He acquired as his patron Philip Tisdall, the immensely influential Attorney General for Ireland, who called him "the most promising of the rising young men".[5] At Tisdall's request Burgh was appointed Prime Serjeant in 1776.[6] He resigned the office in 1779, in protest at the continuing restrictions on free trade, after making his celebrated speech "England has sown her laws as dragon's teeth". After the removal of the restrictions, he agreed to accept office again, and was re-appointed Prime Serjeant in 1782. A month later he was appointed Chief Baron of the Irish Exchequer, but he died the following year while holding the assizes in Armagh, reportedly from gaol fever.[7]


He was regarded as one of the greatest Irish orators of his time, but his speeches survive only in fragments. Memorable sayings of Burgh include:-

  • "Talk not to me of peace. Ireland is not at peace, it is smothered war. England has sown her laws as dragon's teeth, and they have sprung up as armed men."
  • "Our members are returned by the fear or dependence, not the affection or choice of the electoral body.Unaccountable for their conduct in Parliament, their venality is unrestrained and universal corruption reigns in the House."
  • I never will support any Government in fraudulently concealing from the King the rights of his people.


Hussey Burgh seems to have been universally liked: "mild, moderate and patriotic...friendly to a fault, and disinterested to a weakness...honest without affluence and ambitious without corruption. "[8] His one fault, it was generally agreed, was extravagance: he lived in considerable state, and liked to be driven to Court in a carriage with six horses and three outriders. As a result of his improvidence, his early death left his children unprovided for, until Henry Grattan persuaded the House of Commons to vote them a pension.[9]


  1. ^ Henderson, Thomas Findlayson "Walter Hussey Burgh" Dictionary of National Biography 1885-1900 Vol. 7 p.329
  2. ^ DNB
  3. ^ DNB
  4. ^ DNB
  5. ^ A.R. Hart History of the Kings Serjeants-at-law in Ireland Four Courts Press Dublin 2000
  6. ^ Hart Irish Serjeants
  7. ^ Ball, F. Elrington The Judges in Ireland 1221-1921 John Murray London 1926
  8. ^ Barrington, Jonah Personal Sketches of his own time London 1869
  9. ^ Webb, Alfred A Compendium of Irish Biography 1878